No fans, no goals, no intensity, no atmosphere. England’s stalemate in Croatia felt defined by what and who was missing. Perhaps if the World Cup finalists had been able to call upon Mario Mandzukic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Strinic and Sime Vrsaljko, England would have suffered a second defeat in three months to 21st-century rivals. Instead, a home victory against Croatia next month would now ensure England avoid the ignominy of Nations League relegation.
Yet a draw may have another significance. This could be a companion piece to the 2017 friendly defeat to Germany, and not merely because injuries depleted England and brought some unusual choices for each game. Nineteen months ago, Gareth Southgate first experimented with a back three. It was a formation that helped them confound expectations in the World Cup. It was one whose shortcomings were exploited by the Croatians in Moscow. A strength threatened to become a weakness.
A change to 4-3-3 may be a temporary affair, but it highlighted Southgate’s refreshing willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, first everyone else’s and now his own. With his 3-5-2, he realised: “We were getting outnumbered in midfield. We’ve suffered a bit because of the shape.” The 4-3-3, Harry Kane felt, helped England match up off the ball. “Without the ball, it meant we were able to get higher and get closer to their midfield,” Southgate said. It allowed England to have more possession. They could also press better and pen Croatia in. If the tactics he introduced against Germany owed something to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, a narrow 4-3-3 with twin No 8s was more reminiscent of Maurizio Sarri’s Blues.
It was nevertheless a hybrid shape. Eric Dier’s versatility became a boon. The Tottenham Hotspur man operated in midfield when Croatia had possession and dropped into the back three when England had it, allowing the full-backs to push forward. “It’s perfect for Eric to drop in,” Southgate added.
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If it was one way of getting Dier and Jordan Henderson into the same side, the Liverpool captain had other duties. Kieran Trippier was a beneficiary of Southgate’s preference for wing-backs, creating more chances than anyone else at the World Cup. Yet with Kyle Walker the chosen right-back, the revelation in Russia was dropped. Henderson took over as the set-piece specialist. The quality of his delivery was apparent when Dier and Kane hit the woodwork.
If England’s inability to score highlighted Marcus Rashford’s misses, it also showed a reliance on dead-ball situation remains. If more ruthlessness is required – and Rashford is yet to score an international goal away from home, Kane has no goal in his last six England games and Raheem Sterling none in 27 – so is more creativity.
Southgate suggested the shift in shape was not a one-off affair. “Some of the young players coming through are wide players and No 8s that might suit that system,” he said. The youngest of all, Jadon Sancho, had an eye-catching cameo. It is a sign of the Borussia Dortmund winger’s precociousness that he was only two months old when Steven Gerrard made his England debut. It is easy to envisage Mason Mount as one of the No 8s or, indeed, Phil Foden, who excelled on his Under 21s bow on Thursday.
The more immediate requirement is to find someone to face Spainon Monday. Henderson made history in minor fashion, becoming the first England player to pick up a suspension in the Nations League. John Stones followed and if Joe Gomez looks a natural replacement for the Manchester City man, it is more of a moot point who will fill the midfield vacancy. Harry Winks and Nathaniel Chalobah may be the likeliest candidates, assuming Ross Barkley keeps his place.
Even the names are a sign this is something different. The Rijeka stalemate ended England’s run of four straight competitive defeats. While Southgate said sides should not be rigid and require flexibility, it may yet prove the end of something else, too, if the World Cup system is discarded.